Academia

I spent Friday morning at the New York City Academy for Software Engineering, near Union Square. From the name, and the high-tech geometric logo, you might expect that this is an elite private or charter school, like Stuyvesant. That’s not an accident, but at the moment it’s far from the truth. Instead, AFSE is open to all incoming freshmen, subject only to random lottery. Demographically, the school looks a lot like the average New York City public school. (One difference: the number of students labeled white is 9%, lower than the 15% city-wide average.)

AFSE doesn’t have its own building. It shares a gorgeous WPA-era city school building with half a dozen other small high schools. While I was there, another school was having their graduation ceremony in the grand auditorium that takes up most of the first floor.

The event was billed as a hackathon, but in conventional terms it was more like a “pitch competition” without the competition. Students formed into teams, developed ideas for apps or websites on a theme (“the environment”), sketched those themes as “paper prototypes”, and then used moqup.com to make simple mockups of the user interfaces.

Three or four professionals were assigned to each classroom of 16 or so freshmen and sophomores. I floated from table to table, asking what students were thinking about, offering advice and encouragement, and sometimes just hanging and chatting (on topic) with students who seemed a bit unfocused. Overall, I was impressed. All the students, even the most distracted, put in serious effort and by lunchtime had an interactive mockup of a totally plausible website or app to help the environment.

Serious software engineering it is not, but it was a good reminder: if you’re looking for kids with motivation, inspiration, and imagination, they’re not hard to find. They’re everywhere.

The Flying Doctor

The first play Moliere ever wrote was The Flying Doctor, a simple comedy based on the Italian Renaissance-era “commedia dell’arte” stock characters. It’s got a few good jokes, and lots of opportunities for hamming it up. Played straight, it’s maybe 30 minutes long.

Someone in my office sent out a broadcast e-mail announcing a local production of the play in an experimental theater venue at the south edge of Chinatown, with tickets that are practically free. I have a theory that NYC is the best place in the world to be an audience member for any kind of performance, so I took note. On Friday, I finally got to see it.

The production is theater in the round, sort of. You walk through Central Booking, which is something between a housewares store and and art gallery, to a doorway draped with silver tinsel. Through the door is a room full of mirrors and lights at all strange angles, surrounding a mirror-surfaced stage on the floor. (It looks like this.)

Then the actors come in, and the dream begins. In the first half, the actors perform the entire play, seamlessly shifting between cast and band for mood-appropriate indie rock musical numbers. When acting, lines are often repeated and varied, like an improv troupe looking for the perfect version of the story.

Just as the play ends, it loops to the beginning again, this time faster, greedier, less funny, more real, and the comedy tips into an impossible metaplot tragedy.

On Friday night, there were equally many people in the audience as on stage, and only enough seats for maybe a 3:1 ratio at full capacity. On a talent per seat per dollar basis, this show is the deal of a lifetime. If you’d like to spend 90 minutes in a classic, fantastic, otherworldly theatrical experience, and you’re going to be in Manhattan before July 2nd, I highly recommend it.

The Tall Blond Man with One Black Shoe

On Friday night we went to see Le grand blond avec une chaussure noire, shown for free under the grand arch of Washington Square Park courtesy of the French Consulate. It’s a 1972 send-up of the spy movie genre … or maybe a deeper commentary on cold-war paranoia.

The movie portrays two French spy chiefs with overlapping areas of responsibility. Ostensibly colleagues, they spend the entire film spying on each other, keeping secrets, and (most importantly) attempting to drive each other insane. Their internecine war ends in a shootout, among other things.

In the moment, it’s all light comedy, a parody of James Bond and the like. In retrospect, I wonder if it goes a little deeper. 1972 was the height of NATO-USSR spy shenanigans, obsession with infiltration and nuclear secrets. The movie suggests that the spies had become so obsessed with their work, and so paranoid about the enemy, that they had lost all common sense, and sense of proportion. It’s a timely message today too.

I was walking through the park a few days later with a Russian friend who recognized the title. She had seen it in Russia, as she was a big fan of Pierre Richard. I was a bit surprised that Richard (whom I’d never heard of) was so famous there, and so she explained that in Russia, western movies were only allowed if the stars were Communist sympathizers or resolutely apolitical, and Richard was always approved by the censors. I assume Richard was seen as apolitical, but in the case of this film I’m not so sure. Maybe it’s just 90 minutes of slapstick genius … but I also see a critique of state power as hilariously incompetent, unrealistic, rash, and brutal.

A Light Tax

There’s a phenomenon in taxation where people want to institute a tax on some practice or behavior, but it’s too hard to measure, so they tax some correlated substitute instead. For example, tolls on roads are often designed to cover the cost of repairing wear induced on the road, or represent a cost proportional to the amount of congestion created by vehicles of different sizes. However, it’s hard to measure the weight or length of every vehicle that rolls through the tollbooth, and so (ingeniously?) many tolls instead are based on the vehicle’s number of axles, which is straightforward to verify.

Almost every tax has a bit of this flavor to it, measuring the measurable instead of the platonic ideal. Even an income tax might be seen as an approximation to a tax based on wealth, which would seem fairer but is much harder to measure.

I’ve just stumbled across a particularly lovely example of taxing what you can measure: the window tax. From 1696 to 1851, every house in England was subject to an annual tax based on the number of windows. The tax was progressive: the first ten windows were free. Owning a house with many windows must have been seen as a good proxy for wealth, and hence for progressive taxation. It may not be a perfect surrogate, but (unlike our modern practice of property assessment) at least it’s (mostly) not subject to debate.

So the next time you wonder why hot meatballs are taxable but cold meatballs are not, just remember the generations of Englishmen who grudgingly paid the king each year for every window in their house.

Time delay

Over the weekend I finished reading The Dark Forest, second book in the Three Body trilogy. The third book is coming out in the fall, so I’m all caught up. Sort of.

The odd thing about all this is that the ending is already well-known (not that I’ve peeked). The trilogy was originally written in Chinese, and published for the Chinese-language market. Only after it was a big success did a publisher agree to hire translators and produce a version for international readers. The third book came out years ago; it’s the translation that’s due this year.

It feels strange to be reading on a time delay, especially one that seems so artificial: couldn’t they have translated all three books and published them together? On the plus side, waiting for the whole trilogy before publishing the first book in English means that the publishers (and Chinese audience) have vetted the last book for me. It can’t be bad!

As for the second, it certainly strikes a different tone from the first. It’s set in the future, first near and then farther, so it’s themes are far less aggressively historical. Instead, it’s a canvas for consideration of abstract ideas and open questions: love, delusion, internationalism, strength of character, the limits of morality. I don’t expect it to win any awards for style, but it does well enough as both a coherent story and a vehicle for consideration of new ideas.

Burying the lede

The LIGO project observed its first gravitational wave within a week of first turning on, but didn’t report it until nine months later. The odds of that event being extremely rare are low … but then the obvious question is: have they observed more since? Had they observed more at the time?

The Boston Globe’s article profiling MIT professor Rainer Weiss includes the answer to this question, buried in a quote at the bottom of the piece:

there seem to be about one of them a month that we can detect

With the exception of Rainer Weiss, the LIGO team must have an incredible poker face, for this not to have leaked for so long … but as I said, it’s also not a surprise.

This is going to be so exciting!

K-Town

Friday night I went out with some coworkers to Korea-town. We went to a snazzy Korean-inflected burger place hidden in plain sight, on the second floor of a building with a run-down nondescript lobby. Then we went to a food court where American pop music played over Korean music videos, and our dessert stop featured chocolate “dirt” served in an actual miniature flowerpot.

As we walked out onto the sidewalk, someone suggested finishing off with karaoke. Some of us pulled out our phones to look for the nearest karaoke parlor, but one of us just pointed straight up. Sure enough, on the fourth floor directly across the street was a sign for WOW Karaoke, where we rented one of their 5 rooms for an hour.

I’m not saying New York City is always this convenient, but sometimes it really is.